Detroit schools need more oversight

Steven Cook

Passage of revamped educator evaluation laws last year appeared to be a new beginning — one where the Legislature’s idea of education reform wasn’t simply a veiled attack on school employee unions.

Unfortunately, that may have been an anomaly.

As the Detroit Public Schools experiences a severe financial crisis, some in Lansing see a new opportunity for new attacks against teachers, support staff and their unions — all while holding the education of Detroit’s students hostage.

A state House plan seeks to pay the DPS debt incurred under state control — but attached is a bill that guts collective bargaining for employees, brought by extreme lawmakers beholden to deep-pocketed, anti-public education interests. Other bills in the package allow for greater outsourcing of staff, permit non-certified teachers in Detroit classrooms and force year-round school.

These tacked-on proposals don’t contribute to solving the financial crisis facing DPS or improving the academic success of Detroit students. These bills work to silence the voices of dedicated educators who are standing up for the schools their students deserve.

The state has failed students, parents and educators of Detroit. The emergency managers failed at the one task they were assigned: stabilize the financial condition of the district. Under four different state-appointed financial managers since 2009, DPS’ financial condition has gotten worse, not better. The district is now in excess of $500 million in deficit and is expected to run out of money next month.

But there is still hope to solve this crisis. Senate Republicans have another plan to create a financially stable DPS, but unlike the House plan, it was created through collaboration with a variety of stakeholders. Both plans entail splitting DPS into a new community district to take over the day-to-day education of students, while retaining the old district to help pay off debt. But the Senate plan doesn’t include the litany of unrelated, anti-educator, anti-union provisions contained in the House package.

While we still have some significant concerns, the Michigan Education Association applauds the process Senate Republicans have used. Much like the evaluation bill, no one is getting everything they want, but most voices have been heard.

One critical piece missing from both plans is the creation of an education commission to bring coherence to public education in Detroit. Several experts have testified to the need for such a comprehensive oversight body.

The proliferation of charter schools in Detroit has diverted scarce resources away from neighborhood schools, contributing to the financial — and physical — deterioration of Detroit Public Schools. Many of these charters haven’t outperformed their traditional DPS counterparts in student achievement.

There is a strong need for an oversight body which could coordinate the opening and closing of both charters and neighborhood schools based on community need. The city currently has an oversupply of schools in some areas, while in other parts of the city, more schools are needed.

Such a commission would allow stakeholders in Detroit — parents, educators, unions, community, business groups and the government — to work collaboratively on what’s best for students. That’s the best way to help students, not just in Detroit, but across our state.

Adding an education commission with the authority needed to be effective to the Senate legislation would be another step in making that a collaborative proposal — and another signal that working together on what’s best for students is the right way to improve all of Michigan’s schools.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.